church

A vibrant mix of society attends a Church Under the Bridge service beneath the Interstate 35 and South Fourth Street bridge.

Jimmy Dorrell photo

Twenty-four years ago, Janet and I had our third Friday breakfast outside a local restaurant with the chronic homeless men and women who slept under the Interstate 35 and South Fourth Street bridge. After developing relationships with them and hearing the stories that led them to the streets, we began to understand what the average citizen often cannot fully comprehend.

None of these individuals ever planned on living under a bridge and hustling money from passengers at the corner. They had dreams, as we all do. But along the way, life got messy. Some developed mental health issues. Others lost their jobs or experienced nasty divorces. Some had gone to jail or prison with no one there to help them reintegrate back into society. Several had fallen prey to alcohol or drug addition.

And, after months or years of rejection and hopelessness, most had given up their dreams and settled for life under a bridge, finding ways to survive and dull the pain.

“Come over to our camp under the bridge and lead a Bible study,” one of them said to us. While not an invitation everyone would celebrate, without hesitation, we said, “Yes, we’ll see you this Sunday.”

And they came. Only five showed up under the noisy highway overpass that first day. Janet sang a few songs. I led a Bible study on Romans. We talked, laughed and prayed.

“Will you come back next week?” one asked.

“Absolutely.”

The following Sunday, a homeless man held a sign on the corner. It wasn’t for food or money or a job. The cardboard placard said: “Come to Bible study.” Twelve homeless folks showed up that week. And every week, more of them and a growing number of poor and marginalized gathered under the concrete sanctuary.

Fast-forward 24 years, some 1,248 Sunday mornings later: The homeless and poor are still there but not to sleep. More than 125 of them line up at 10:30 a.m. for a hot meal, provided by a church or organization. Some come from as far away as Dallas. But those in the food line are no longer the only ones present. The crowd, which often grows to 300, is an incredible mix of folks. There are blacks, whites and browns, poor and rich, Baylor University students and out-of-town visitors.

Consider the scene: A schizophrenic man nervously paces around the perimeter of the bridge. The sound truck, stage, children’s trailer and porta-potties are set up while a group of 25 men and women meet in a circle nearby to hold one another accountable in their journey of sobriety. There are lots of hugs, words of encouragement and loud laughter among the members. The worship team begins to play, and singing bellows out below the 18-wheelers roaring overhead.

A physically challenged woman reads the Scripture, children recite the Lord’s Prayer, and guests welcome one another. A mentally ill man mimics guitar-playing onstage as a regular part of the team. A woman who prostituted her body for years on the streets shares her decision to start over. An ex-offender celebrates his new job after months of searching. A formerly hate-filled white biker hugs an African-American friend. A wealthy woman confesses her own misunderstanding and prejudice toward the poor and asks for forgiveness. A family living in their car asks for help.

This Sunday Church Under the Bridge will celebrate its 24th anniversary. We’ll remember the journey of changed lives, baptisms, weddings, small groups, softball games and funerals. We’ll celebrate how our sacrificial donations are supporting the poor in Waco, Haiti, India and Mexico City. We’ll sing again.

Efforts of compassion have grown throughout our city these 24 years. While no longer officially connected to Church Under the Bridge, Mission Waco has created a 56-bed homeless shelter as well as a job-training program, substance-abuse residential recovery and even a pay-what-you-can health clinic. A well-established Heart of Texas Homeless Coalition and other nonprofits have developed a continuum of care to fill many of the gaps in services. There is teamwork and appreciation for one another like never before in Waco.

From 8 to 10:30 a.m. Sunday, the community is invited to join the 11th annual 1.2-mile “Walk for the Homeless,” beginning at the Meyer Center, 1226 Washington Ave. After the distribution of almost 100 pairs of new tennis shoes to the homeless, walkers will travel to seven sites and hear brief messages from local nonprofit, community and church leaders about their ongoing efforts for the poor. No registration is required, though donations of hygiene items are requested for the homeless.

Following the “Walk,” everyone is invited to join Church Under the Bridge’s 24th anniversary worship service at 10:45 a.m., followed by lunch under the bridge. And if that’s not enough, this weekend will also witness another of Mission Waco’s poverty simulations, offering those of us favored by fortune an upclose view of poverty in our city, this time complete with coverage by a visiting French journalist. So far, 24,000 have gone through these simulations the past 30 years. And the outreach continues.

Jimmy Dorrell, co-founder and executive director of Mission Waco/Mission World, is pastor of Church Under the Bridge and teaches classes at Baylor University and Truett Seminary in Waco. He has served on many boards including the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Council, Parents as Teachers, Compassion Ministries of Waco, Census 2000 Special Housing Subcommittee and the Christian Community Development Association.